With Twins in the midst of a spiral, here are two reasons for hope

The Twins’ season, which was off to a stable, if weather-delayed 8-5 start, has morphed into something ugly. As the games have piled up, so have the losses. Minnesota has lost 9 of its last 10 games heading into Monday’s home game against Toronto, dropping the Twins’ overall record to 9-14.

That’s just 23 games — pretty much one-seventh of the season — but it’s a pace for a 99-loss season. What in the name of 2011 is going on around here?

Well, there are a few things that won’t get better for a while. Byron Buxton is injured. Miguel Sano is due to miss his third straight game with a hamstring injury. Ervin Santana has been slow to heal from offseason finger surgery that was slow to arrive. Jorge Polanco is suspended for half the year.

So yeah, not good.

But the headline said “reason for hope,” so let’s give it a try. Here are a couple of things that *should* get better.

1) The Twins’ offense has been disappointing this season, averaging just four runs per game after averaging a full run more while surging to a playoff spot in 2017.

At least part of that, though, is skewed by particularly bad — and probably short-term — numbers with runners in scoring position.

See, the Twins have a .713 team OPS — No. 18 in the majors and just below MLB average of .718. That’s not great, nor is it where they want it to be. But it’s not awful.

What’s holding them back in large part is that  they’re tied for second-worst in MLB in both batting average (.197) with runners in scoring position and OPS (.564) with RiSP. The Twins were ninth in the majors in both categories last season, and even a return to the middle of the pack would give a sorely needed boost to the offense.

2) Twins starting pitchers are No. 29 in MLB in ERA at 5.26 — and that’s after they didn’t allow a run in 21 innings during the first series of the year.

Near the bottom in starting pitcher ERA is a familiar place for Twins starters to be, but it’s somewhat unexpected this season given the offseason additions of rotation-stabilizing starters Jake Odorizzi and Lance Lynn.

It goes to show how much they miss Santana, but it’s also evidence that established pitchers have underperformed. Lynn, who didn’t sign until well into spring training, has a 7.71 ERA and has walked 18 hitters in 18 2/3 innings heading into his start Monday against Toronto. He should find his command soon, and if/when he does, the Twins’ rotation should fare better.

Vikings better hope they’re right about draft — and Pro Football Focus is wrong

It’s partially true and partially an extreme cop-out to say we can’t evaluate how teams perform in the NFL Draft until a few years down the road.

What’s true is that we don’t know how college players in their early 20s will look and perform in their mid-20s after having time to develop, grow and learn in an NFL system. We don’t know about injuries. We don’t know about untapped potential.

But I also think it is more than fair to evaluate a couple of things in the short-term: Did a team appear to get good value based on the consensus about players — as shaky as that might be — going into the draft? And did a team seem to have a good approach to the draft based on its needs and the status relative to the rest of the league?

On these two points, the Vikings are wide open to criticism for this year’s draft. My gut instinct was that neither their value nor approach were good.

Some data bears that out. Arif Hasan at Zone Coverage has a nice chart of where the Vikings landed in terms of return on investment as it pertains to the consensus of where players were valued vs. where they were drafted, and the Vikings finished 23rd of 32 teams.

Specifically, as it concerns the offensive line: The Vikings better hope they are right and Pro Football Focus is wrong.

The Vikings eschewed a safe pick at No. 30 overall — an offensive guard to perhaps plug in and start right away in place of the retired Joe Berger. They went instead with cornerback Mike Hughes and then chose tackle Brian O’Neill No. 62 overall. They didn’t take another swing at an offensive lineman until the sixth round with guard Colby Gossett, another project.

PFF had this to say about O’Neill, whom they ranked the No. 91 overall prospect: “O’Neill is a terrific athlete for the position and possesses some of the best mirroring ability in the entire class. His punch and play strength are lacking at the moment though, and it’s concerning how poorly he performed Senior Bowl week. While there, he won only 27 percent of his reps in 1-on-1 practice.”

The Vikings received better value for Gossett, deemed PFF’s No. 137 prospect out of Appalachian State, but neither player is a plug-and-play prospect. Both likely need time to grow and develop. PFF, by the way, graded the Vikings’ overall draft as “below average.”

So the Vikings might not have added an immediately useful offensive lineman. Last year, their offensive line was very much improved from where it was in 2016, when it heavily contributed to ruining their season. Free agent tackles Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers had a big hand in that, as did rookie center Pat Elflein and guard Nick Easton.

Here’s the thing, though: Remmers was by far the Vikings highest-graded tackle last season, finishing with a PFF grade of 69.6. Reiff was at 48.6 and backup Rashod Hill was at 43.6. Remmers was shifted to guard in the playoffs while Hill started at tackle to compensate for Easton’s injury. It was pretty much a disaster against the Eagles, with the Vikings allowing pressures on 24 of Case Keenum’s 50 dropbacks (48 percent). That was after a regular season in which Keenum was pressured on 39.3 percent of his dropbacks, the third most of any NFL QB.

Overall, the Vikings improved their pass blocking efficiency in the regular season from 23rd in 2016 to 13th last season. The body of work that said the line was average last year was much larger than the playoff sample that showed it was still a major concern.

That said, their highest-graded lineman last season was Berger, and he retired. They signed veteran Tom Compton in the offseason, while Danny Isidora has showed promise. Those two plus accelerated development from either or both draft picks could help quiet fears about the offensive line. The Vikings have flexibility in that Remmers can play guard or tackle, but they seem best off with him at tackle.

I’m not wild about offensive line “ifs” on a team that has had seasons ruined by poor line play and that just spent $84 million guaranteed on QB Kirk Cousins — a guy who threw nine interceptions while under pressure last year, per PFF, tied for most in the NFL. Keenum, by the way, threw two. (Cousins did also throw nine TDs under pressure, tied for most in the NFL. Keenum threw five).

It just seems strange that a team with a well-defined window to win — including legitimate Super Bowl aspirations in 2018 — conducted a draft more befitting of a team ready to win in three years. Even if you have a belief system of trying to hit home runs, this felt like a year to play it straight and gobble up players more immediately useful.

But they didn’t, or at least it doesn’t look like they did. As a result, if the Vikings roster isn’t as good and deep as decisionmakers think it is, they could have problems next season.

Two years later: Evaluating the Tom Thibodeau and Bruce Boudreau hires

Almost exactly two years ago, the head coaching landscape in Minnesota sports changed considerably.

On April 20, 2016, the Timberwolves announced they were hiring Tom Thibodeau as head coach and president of basketball operations. A couple weeks later, the Wild announced the hiring of Bruce Boudreau as head coach.

Both veteran coaches were among the best available options for any team with a coaching vacancy that offseason, and both were considered upgrades over their predecessors.

Both also came in with their own perceived deficiencies. If the hope was that Thibodeau and Boudreau had either learned from the past or could overcome parts of their resumes considered flaws, I’d say the hope has not come to fruition in either case. Instead, two years into each tenure, both men are — in the words of the late Dennis Green — who we thought they were.

That doesn’t mean their stories are done being written. But here is how both can be evaluated through two seasons in Minnesota.

Thibodeau: He was brought in to help the Timberwolves return to the playoffs, with the ultimate goal of contending for a championship. As head coach of the Bulls for five years prior to coming here — with a year off in between — Thibodeau took Chicago to the playoffs all five times. He reached the conference finals once and the second round two other times.

A reasonable person could conclude the Wolves underachieved to some degree in his first season, winning just 31 games. A reasonable person could also say this season at many points didn’t look or feel like a joyful return to relevance, but the end result was undeniable. The Wolves improved by 16 victories, and their 47 wins pushed them into the postseason in the hyper-competitive Western Conference. If not for Jimmy Butler’s late-season injury, Minnesota might have had a much more favorable playoff seed and not been bounced in five games by top-seeded Houston.

The criticism of Thibodeau in Chicago stemmed less from his results and more from his methods. Bulls players logged heavy minutes, and Thibodeau eventually wore out his welcome. He was fired after five seasons, with two years and $9 million remaining on his contract.

Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf delivered a somewhat icy statement upon Thibodeau’s departure: “When everyone is on the same page, trust develops and teams can grow and succeed together. Unfortunately, there has been a departure from this culture. To ensure that the Chicago Bulls can continue to grow and succeed, we have decided that a change in the head coaching position is required. Days like today are difficult, but necessary for us to achieve our goals and fulfill our commitments to our fans.”

If the hope was that Thibodeau’s year off would produce healthy changes, it’s hard to say that has occurred. Starters are still playing heavy minutes, and Thibodeau is still being criticized for it. Evidence of growth on the Wolves has been limited, with their improvement this year primarily linked to Thibodeau’s acquisition of veteran players — old pal Jimmy Butler chief among them.

The Wolves won this year with offense, while Thibodeau’s Bulls tended to win with defense. But while the method is different, the biggest check mark on the positive side of the Thibodeau’s ledger appears to still be his ability to get teams to grind out victories. That’s a mighty big positive and in some ways trumps everything else — at least until it doesn’t, as happened in what turned into a toxic all-around situation in Chicago for which plenty of people probably share blame.

Boudreau: He was brought in to provide a veteran coaching presence and more of an exciting offensive approach after the youth and defensive style of Mike Yeo was deemed to have run its course.

The biggest reason a respected coach like Boudreau was available, though, was that he had just endured another playoff disappointment in Anaheim. The favored Ducks were bounced in the first round by Nashville, losing Game 7 at home. That put Boudreau’s career mark in playoff Game 7s at 1-7.

So his reputation was that of a very good regular-season coach whose teams play an entertaining style … but also tended to fall short against better competition and in higher-pressure situations in the playoffs.

Through two seasons, that’s exactly what’s happened with the Wild. Minnesota topped 100 points each of his first two seasons, but both times the Wild was eliminated in five games in the first round. This year’s departure — while more understandable given injuries — played at least a role in the dismissal of GM Chuck Fletcher.

It’s hard to say if Boudreau’s teams overachieve in the regular season or underachieve in the playoffs, but he’s coached eight regular-season teams with at least 100 points in his career, and those teams are a combined 40-43 in the playoffs with zero Stanley Cup finals appearances.

The Wolves hired a coach two years ago with a history of working players hard and — fair or not — wearing out his welcome. The Wild hired a coach with a history of winning at a high rate in the regular season but not the playoffs.

Two years after those hires, the narrative has not changed in either case.

TV ratings show it’s still ‘State of Hockey’ — but Wolves close gap on Wild

After the Timberwolves’ regular season ended, Fox Sports North put out a news release about the team’s relatively strong television performance this year.

The Wolves had a 2.6 rating in the Minneapolis-St. Paul market on FSN this season, up 78 percent over a year ago. The improvement from 31 to 47 wins and the team’s dramatic, ultimately successful push for its first postseason berth since 2004 surely played a role in that.

I don’t recall seeing a similar release on the Wild this season — it’s entirely possible I missed it — but Sports Business Daily filled in the gap nicely with a recent piece on local NHL TV ratings this season.

Per that report, the Wild had a 3.43 rating on FSN — down 22 percent from the previous year. I’m not overly surprised by the decrease. Even as the Wild churned toward a sixth consecutive playoff berth, it wasn’t an overly compelling or different team than we had seen in past years. On nights when both the Wild and Wolves were televised on FSN and FSN+, the Wild might have lost some battles it previously won given increased interest in the Wolves.

So as far as TV ratings go, this is still the State of Hockey. But the gap has narrowed considerably.

Assuming this year’s numbers are accurate, if the Wolves improved by 78 percent to 2.6, that means their rating for the 2016-17 season was 1.46.

And if the Wild decreased 22 percent to 3.43, it means Minnesota’s rating in 2016-17 was 4.40.

A rating point in the Minneapolis-St. Paul market represents 17,600 households.

So a season ago, the Wild TV ratings were three times as high as the Wolves’ ratings. Roughly 25,600 viewers watched the Wolves on FSN on average per game, and 77,400 viewers watched the Wild.

This year? 45,700 watched the Wolves and 60,300 watched the Wild on average.

It added up to a net-gain for FSN spanning both teams, with 103,000 viewers per game combined a season ago and 106,000 this year.

And the other good news for the Wild (and FSN) is that, per Sports Business Daily, the Wild ranked fourth among the 22 U.S. markets for which local TV data is available.

Baker Mayfield remakes classic Brett Favre draft photo, wins the Internet

We don’t know yet where Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield will end up being selected in this year’s NFL draft.

Chances are, it will be very high.

And regardless of any future riches coming his way, Mayfield is already a draft winner in one sense.

On Wednesday, he won the Internet. The whole thing. Or at least Twitter.

Mayfield, a confident young man who has been compared in some ways to Brett Favre, tweeted a photo in which he re-created an iconic predraft photo of Favre from 1991.

You’ve likely seen it: Favre in denim shorts (jorts, if you prefer) holding a cordless phone with a bunch of excited folks in the background. If you were creating a time capsule for sports in 1991, this photo would go in it.

Mayfield’s rendition was faithful right down to the jorts.

Even if he doesn’t turn out to be a Favre clone (the Gunslinger went No. 33 overall in the second round to Atlanta, by the way, before being traded early in his career to the Packers), Mayfield will always have this.

Here’s the new reason Minnesota sports teams are cursed

My wife often teases me about my ability to see plausible paths to victory or success for Minnesota sports teams when the reality tells us the alternative is — if not assured — then at least far more likely.

A voicemail from a random reader left on my office phone the other day reinforced that idea, at least when it comes to what have traditionally been considered the four major men’s professional sports in the United States.

With the Wolves losing their playoff series to the Rockets on Wednesday, the caller noted, Minnesota teams in the NHL, NBA, MLB and NFL have now gone 100 combined seasons since any even played in the championship game or series of their league, let alone won it. Yes, it’s been since the Twins won the World Series in 1991 — 26 seasons of the Twins, 27 for the Vikings, 27 for the Wolves and 20 combined for the North Stars (two) and Wild (18).

When does Lynx training camp open again? Sunday! Good! The WNBA dynasty has been the pro sports antidote to all of this gloom and doom.

But first, I want to circle back on the misery because my brain made a very strange connection the other day (as it often does). While I don’t technically believe in “curses,” it’s hard not to believe in this:

In 2018, Minnesota teams have been subjected to the Curse of the Flying Objects.

The Vikings had one of their best regular seasons in history and advanced all the way to the NFC title game, where they were one game away from playing in the Super Bowl in their home stadium. Instead, they were crushed 38-7 by the Eagles.

The Wild and Wolves then made the postseason in the same year for just the second time ever. The giddiness quickly dissipated, though. First, it was the Wild getting bounced in five games by the Jets. The Timberwolves’ series followed the same pattern, and they, too, lost — to the Rockets.

Three trips to the playoffs. Three resounding defeats at the hands of teams with flying nicknames.

Surely, though, such nicknames aren’t that uncommon, right? Well, by my count just 6 of 32 NFL teams have flying nicknames. In the NHL it’s just 3 of 31 and in the NBA it’s 5 of 30.

The chance of all three Minnesota teams facing — let alone losing to — teams with flying nicknames in all three sports is just 0.3 percent.

Does this apply to college teams as well?

Glad you asked. The Gophers women’s basketball team advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament, only to be routed by the Oregon Ducks.

St. Cloud State was the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA men’s hockey tournament before being ousted by the Air Force Falcons in the opening game. BUT: Minnesota-Duluth knocked out the Falcons in the next game en route to a championship. Maybe it’s just a metro area curse?

If you’re worried about the Lynx, there’s good news. One, they seem immune to curses (though there is that whole even-year jinx thing whereby their four WNBA titles have come in 2011, 2013, 2015 and 2017). And two, the WNBA doesn’t have any teams with bird or aviation nicknames. Just to be safe, though, the Lynx are going to want to avoid the Dallas Wings, Connecticut Sun and Chicago Sky in this year’s playoffs.

Minnesota United, should it make the playoffs, has no flying concerns in Major League Soccer. The Loons’ greater problem is that balls keep flying into their goal at an alarming rate.

The Twins will want to steer clear of the Orioles, Blue Jays, and Cardinals in the postseason — though in the last case, it would at least mean they were in the World Series and had broken that 100-season drought mentioned above.

Great, you say. At least they wouldn’t have to play their real nemesis, the Yankees.

Sure, except you know what they also call the Yankees, right? The Bronx Bombers. A combat aircraft. Gulp.

 

Recovering former President Bush is focused on Rockets beating Wolves

This past week has been beyond awful for George H.W. Bush, the 41st President of the United States. Saturday was the funeral for Barbara, his wife of 73 years. A day later, Bush was hospitalized with a serious infection.

Wednesday at least marked a day of better news — and perhaps some levity from Bush. According to a statement from his office, Bush was moved from intensive care to a regular room at Houston Methodist Hospital. And as part of that statement, there was this:

“As good as he feels now, he is more focused on the Houston Rockets closing out their playoff series against the Minnesota Timberwolves than anything that landed him in the hospital.”

Welcome back to head coaching, Brad Childress

Brad Childress has been a football coach in some capacity since 1978, a span of 40 years. But he’s only been a head coach at one stop: From 2006 through most of 2010 with the Vikings.

That is slated to change, though. It was announced Wednesday that Childress is going to be the head coach of the Atlanta franchise in the professional Alliance of American Football league set to debut in February of 2019 — shortly after the Super Bowl in Atlanta.

His offensive coordinator? Former Falcons QB Michael Vick.

OK then.

The AAF will have eight teams and play a 10-game regular season. It’s hard to say this league is a challenger to the NFL — season ticket deposits for the Atlanta franchise are just $50 — but it figures to be a developmental league that could fill a niche.

Childress has worked for the Browns and Chiefs since being fired in 2010 after a 3-7 start with the Vikings, and just two months ago he was hired by the Bears as an offensive analyst. He compiled a 39-35 regular-season record as Vikings head coach and took the team to the 2009 NFC title game.

To sustain success, Vikings must avoid past draft mistakes

Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said all the right things in his pre-draft news conference with reporters on Tuesday, including this: “Every year is a big draft, but the more heavier or front loaded our roster gets with those big contracts the more important the backups or the role players that you’re hoping will develop into starters make a significant difference.”

Spielman likely doesn’t need further reminders of the importance of the draft even as the Vikings come off one of their best seasons in franchise history, but in case he does here’s a quick look back at how poor drafts have slowed the franchise’s momentum after similarly big seasons.

In the 1999 draft, the Vikings grabbed QB Daunte Culpepper in the first round and blocking tight end Jim Kleinsasser in the second round but largely swung and missed with the rest of their picks.

*In 2000, they plugged in defensive tackle Chris Hovan with their first round pick, but with nine other selections in that draft the Vikings didn’t get much impact or depth.

I*n 2001 and 2002, it was largely the same story: Decent value in the first round (running back Michael Bennett and tackle Bryant McKinnie, respectively) but not much else.

The Vikings went to the playoffs every year from 1997-2000, including two NFC title game berths, but those poor drafts hastened the demise of their championship window. They missed the playoffs from 2001-03 and again from 2005-07.

The cycle didn’t really break until 2006 (Chad Greenway, Cedric Griffin and Ray Edwards) and 2007 (Adrian Peterson, Sidney Rice and Brian Robison), helping the Vikings reach the playoffs in 2008 and the NFC title game in 2009.

But in 2010, with the Vikings holding the No. 30 pick — just like they do this year — they ended up trading down with Detroit. Using the Lions’ No. 34 pick early in the second round, Minnesota chose defensive back Chris Cook.

At No. 51 overall, Minnesota spent a second-round pick on running back Toby Gerhart even though Peterson was in his prime. Everson Griffen was a fourth-round steal, but he didn’t blossom until later in his career. The rest of the draft was forgettable, and the Vikings slipped from 12-4 in 2009 to 6-10 in 2010 and then all the way to 3-13 in 2011.

Kyle Rudolph was the best draft pick in 2011 (second round), a 10-selection draft that also included Christian Ponder in the first round, Brandon Fusco in the sixth round and a bunch of players who never became meaningful contributors. From 2010 through 2014, the Vikings made the playoffs just once and went a combined 31-48-1.

There were some notable draft hits from 2012-14 (first-rounders Harrison Smith, Xavier Rhodes and Anthony Barr chief among them), but it wasn’t until 2015 that the Vikings really hit the jackpot. That draft haul, which included Trae Waynes, Eric Kendricks, Danielle Hunter and Stefon Diggs, might go down as one of the best in franchise history.

Perhaps not surprisingly, those players were all major factors in helping the Vikings reach the NFC title game in 2017. The Vikings are 32-16 in the regular season since that 2015 draft.

Now is the time the Vikings to heed the lessons of past failures. It’s not as though previous regimes attempted to fail at the draft, but perhaps success clouded their thinking and made them feel as though the draft had less urgency.

What we know now is clear: To sustain success in a league with thin margins and tight salary caps, a team must constantly replenish its stock of cheap, young contributors.

Failing to do so might not catch up with a team immediately, but it will at some point — and when it happens, the consequences are often both swift and long-lasting.

Lack of energy? It was a lack of poise that really doomed the Timberwolves

In some ways, the Rockets’ 119-100 victory over the Timberwolves and the 50-point third quarter that fueled it were an unpleasant inevitability.

Houston is the No. 1 seed for a reason and had one of the most efficient regular-season offenses this season for a reason. The Wolves had spent three-and-a-half games of their playoff series playing reasonable defense, but the Rockets had also been missing a lot of open shots they usually make for no good reason other than the law of averages.

Any team that has aspired for a while to achieve a 50-point quarter, as coach Mike D’Antoni said has been a stated goal of his Rockets, is capable of such things.

There is, too, the predictability of the rhythm of a seven-game series between a clear favorite and an underdog. The Wolves put a scare in the Rockets in Game 1 but lost. Houston routed the Wolves in Game 2. The series shifted back to Minnesota for Game 3, where the Rockets exhaled and the Wolves dug in. Fueled by the home crowd and inspired play, the Wolves grabbed a convincing win.

Suddenly Game 4 had the potential to make the series interesting, and the Rockets were motivated by what D’Antoni called a “fear factor.”

Now if the Rockets win back in Houston on Wednesday, the series will have followed the exact pattern of the Wild’s five-game exit.

It’s an arrangement known in some circles as a “gentleman’s sweep,” whereby a superior team doesn’t exactly let an opponent win a game but does step off the gas long enough to make it possible because there is not a genuine worry about losing the series. The better team then cruises to a 4-1 series win, closing things out at home in Game 5.

Minnesota had done enough in the first half of Game 4, though, to create genuine optimism throughout Target Center. Karl-Anthony Towns missed most of the first quarter with two quick fouls. Jeff Teague was banged up and ineffective. And yet there was the halftime score: Houston 50, Wolves 49.

Winnable, not inevitable.

And then … the Wolves came out flat to start the second half, with Karl-Anthony Towns decrying their lack of energy and grit postgame.

Houston started the third quarter on an 8-0 run, pushing the lead to 58-49. I tweeted that the “Rockets seem to be on another level to start 3rd quarter. It’s danger zone right now.”

From there, with every 50-50 call that didn’t go their way, frustration mounted. Wolves Tom Thibodeau, who works officials with vigor, grew even more agitated during that stretch and his team followed suit. Fans picked up on the energy, and it took all of six minutes of game action to completely change the mood and outcome of the series.

If a lack of energy was to blame for a slow start to the third quarter, a lack of poise played perhaps the biggest role in turning a Rockets run into a Rockets runaway.

Afterward, D’Antoni talked about his team’s “spirit” and joked that people might need to “check their tweets” if they ripped James Harden at halftime after a slow start to the game.

His mood — perhaps understandably so — was in stark contrast to that of Thibodeau. The Wolves coach looked particularly crestfallen after the game. He offered that. “It’s the first team to four (wins), so we have to respond,” but neither he nor his players had many concrete answers as to how Houston was the first to 50 in the third quarter.

One reporter hinted with a line of questioning that maybe Derrick Rose — plus-6 for the game and a spark in the first half off the bench — could have made a difference had he re-entered the game earlier in the second half. By the time he checked back in at the 5:54 mark, the Rockets led 77-54. Here was the exchange:

Reporter: Can you talk a little bit about the sub rotations in the third quarter? (No response) In terms of the third quarter, the rotations for subbing? (No response) Derrick Rose was out quite early in this game. Dou you feel like you had a good handle on your sub rotations?

Thibodeau: I don’t understand the question.

Reporter: Like the rotation of players that were subbing in and out.

Thibodeau: Yeah.

That was the end of the postgame news conference and a night filled with more questions than answers.